Jean Harlow and Chester Morris in Red-Headed Woman
Reportedly, Red-Headed Woman was one of the movies that led directly to the Hays Code being enforced. Not only does it show Jean Harlow in revealing outfits; with even a flash of a naked breast, but more importantly it shows her completely amoral character getting ahead by any means possible and with impunity. Thanks to the Hays Code censorship no woman of this character would ever be seen to get ahead for decades to come.
Harlow plays Lil "Red" Andrews, a woman who isn't afraid to do whatever it takes to get what she wants; which in her case means seducing rich men. She has an affair with her married boss who soon finds himself divorced and married to Red. When Red isn't accepted by society or Bill's family, she begins an affair with an even richer man in New York, but all the while she's trading up she's also having an affair with a chauffeur. By the end of the movie, despite being caught in her own web, she still manages to end up on top by the final scene. Despite screwing people over right and left, by the end of the film you have to admire her moxie. It's a classic character and Harlow plays her to perfection.
The original screenplay was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but producer Irving Thalberg, whom Fitzgerald would immortalize in "The Last Tycoon", found his script to be too serious and so had it rewritten in a lighter tone. It's unclear how much, if any, of Fitzgerald's writing remains. There are still some great lines no matter who wrote them. "I'm not gonna spend my whole life on the wrong side of the railroad tracks," Red says at one point. To which her friend Sally replies, "I hope you don't get hit by a train while you're crossing over." At the beginning of the film Red gets this line, "Oh no, I've started on the upgrade, and whatever happens, baby, I'm in the big leagues now."
As for the brief nudity in the film, it's rather humorously inserted for pure titillation. At one point Red returns home to find her roommate wearing her pajamas and she insists that she take them off right now. With careful panning of the camera and quick edits, you see the two girls undress with lots of suggestion but very little skin, until in one very quick scene you see Sally pass Red her pajama top and the camera zips up Harlow's body which is naked from the waist up. Another racy scene involves Bill slapping Red behind a closed a door and Red moaning/crying in a sexual manner. "Do it again," she yells. "I like it."
Sure, the story is pure soap opera and some of it is a touch melodramatic, but the real joy is watching Harlow manipulate all those around her using just her sex appeal. I laughed every time she says, "Bill" in her seductive tone, crooking her finger at him to draw him to her. She's not the smartest girl in the world, but she knows how to use what she's got. The lighter tone Thalberg was looking for also helps keep the story from becoming too serious and provides some genuine laughs.
It never fails to amaze me how adult the pre-code movies seem compared to those made decades later. This movie is light-years ahead of any of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies made 25 or so years later in terms of adult content. Once again I'm left lamenting the movies we might have had if not for decades of censorship.
Jean Harlow takes dictation.
Yes Harlow’s Red is definitely a classic character. She knows what she wants and goes after it with a single-mindedness that is nothing short of narcissism. I love her brazen attitude towards sex. Early in the movie while trying on a dress she asks the salesgirl, “Can you see through this?” The girl replies, “I’m afraid you can, Miss.” Red: “I’ll wear it!” When she tells her friend Sally that she is going to the bosses’ house to drop off the mail she suggestively says, “Maybe I’ll get to stay and take dictation.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald may have contributed to the screenplay but it is credited to Anita Loos. The opening line pays tribute to her most famous work by having Harlow say, “So gentlemen prefer blondes do they?” as she tosses her mane of red hair. Regardless of who wrote what the screenplay is fast, funny and irreverent and I agree with Scott that the ending is a refreshing slap in the face to the mores of the day, not to mention being humorous.
Although Harlow steals the show there are several delightful performances by supporting actors. Una Merkel as Sally brings a dimwitted charm to the character, clearly loving the vicarious thrill of being Red’s best friend and confidante. A young, devilishly handsome Charles Boyer has a small part as the chauffeur Albert. A newcomer to Hollywood, this was just his fourth American movie, he was only beginning to make a name for himself as the actor that always got the girl at the end.
In addition there is the stalwart Lewis Stone. Best remembered today as Andy Hardy’s father in the long running MGM movie series, he plays his usual role as Bill’s stern but fair-minded father. Likewise the venerable May Robson plays her reliable stock character as Bill’s wife Irene’s advice giving wise old Aunt.
These pre-code movies were nearly forgotten until TCM helped bring them back into the spotlight beginning in the mid-1990’s. The production values are sometimes cheap, the black & white images are sometimes grainy and the voices in these early talkies sound tinny. But as Scott mentioned the dialogue is racy, the plots scandalous and the viewpoint quite adult. Red-Headed Woman is a classic example of the era.
Chester Morris never stood a chance.
A woman sexually dominating every man around her is a character that has appeared in many films. Theda Bara, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and most recently Sharon Stone, are famous for playing this type of woman. Jean Harlow's Lil, is part of this group, but she stands alone.
Bara was a spider that lured men to her web and then destroyed them, because she could. Hayworth did it for love. Monroe did it for a wedding ring, and Stone did it for fun. Although all of these women did it for selfish reasons, Harlow is the most self centered.
Lil hurts people and then rubs it in their face. She steals a husband away, marries him, and then moves across the street from the ex-wife to gloat. Lil is one cold bitch. Even her friend calls her, "a home wrecker."
I never liked Lil, but she is always interesting to watch. She never cares who gets hurt. She is totally without a conscious. Although her slutty ways are eventually exposed, she never gets a comeuppance. The worse she gets is when Irene tells her that the only way she got her husband was with sex. Thus informing Lil that her only value in life is her sex appeal, and she will doubtfully ever find true love.
Lil does so much damage that I wanted to see her get what she had coming. She even attempts to kill someone, yet she gets away and ends up on top. This makes for an unsatisfying ending, but it follows the tradition. All the other manipulative women listed above end up getting what they want as well. Nice!
Photos © Copyright MGM (1932)